What is minimalist interior design?

Generally when discussing minimalist homes, people imagine clutter-free rooms with white walls and a lack of any unnecessary furnishing or decor. The look is often seen as a close cousin to Scandinavian or Japanese interiors, where both cultures have long embraced a less-is-more ideology. Spaces that fall within a minimalist design aesthetic are typically defined by clean lines, limited ornamentation, a neutral color scheme, and natural materials. And although this may be an accurate way to describe our contemporary understanding of minimalist house design, there is much more to it than just this. 

“I don’t think minimalism belongs to just the Japanese or the Scandinavians; I think it really extends throughout many, many cultures,” Anishka Clarke, interior design director at Ishka Design, tells AD. She and Bascom point to nomadic communities, like the Wodaabe people, that have long embraced a minimalist lifestyle—partly through necessity—that materializes in a way that doesn’t look like the Western interpretation of minimalist interior design. “Every couple of months, they just pack up and move all of their clothes and their furniture with them,” Bascom says. “So, to me, that’s a very minimal and practical society and way of thinking.” 

This example can help illustrate one of the most important aspects of minimalist design: It’s not just a look, but a way of living. In general, minimalist ideologies discourage unnecessary consumption and instead promote living with what you need. In western society, this often does look like the room designed with straight lines and a monochromatic palette, but it doesn’t have to look this way. 

“There are probably folks out there who don’t have a sense of design in their blood at all, but they’re just keeping with what they need,” Clarke says. “They’re just keeping things simplistic, and that is also minimalism.” For example, someone who recognizes they don’t need an armchair because they always sit on the couch could be described as living within a minimalist home.

“Functionality is also key,” Clarke adds. Often this means creative and thought-out storage as well as design that provides more than just an aesthetically pleasing accent. 

History of minimalist interior design 

When looking at minimalism from this angle, it’s easy to understand that minimalist design doesn’t have any one specific beginning. “It didn’t start, but it got defined as a style right between the ’60s and ’70s,” Clarke says. 

The interiors movement can largely be traced back to the minimalist art movement, which became popular following World War II. Artists such as Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Agnes Martin are often noted as pioneers of form. “It derived from art and artists,” Bascom says. As the style took shape in the visual arts, many of its core principles were introduced in design and architecture as well, becoming particularly popular in the 1980s. Structures were reduced to only necessary elements, which has been described as a response to the chaos and harshness of urban life. In design, the aesthetic can also be traced back to the midcentury-modern and international movements, particularly to visionaries like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who popularized the phrase “less is more.”

Why is minimalist interior design so popular?

Despite its decades-deep roots, minimalist decor and design continues to prevail in the hearts and eyes of countless aesthetes. “It’s hard for us to talk about minimalism without referencing sustainability,” Clarke says, adding this is an integral aspect to the style’s lasting appeal. As the world faces an impending climate crisis, reducing individual consumption has grown increasingly common as more embrace a back-to-basics mentality. “People start asking, ‘I know I can, but should I?’” Clarke explains. More people start to understand that besides the practicality of living with less, there can also be an innate sense of duty within the style. 

Additionally, Clarke says the style can be seen as a resistance to excess. “You think of the Rococo period and Gaudí and all of these over the top design elements, ornamentation, and beautiful artisanship,” she explains. “But at the end of the day, these styles also equated to a certain class of people, and I think sometimes others are resistant to that, and they want to go in a different direction.” In addition to the sustainable element, the style prevails as some find the beauty in less without feeling the need to constantly show what they have. 

In a minimalist space, you see everything—including any perceived flaws. “This lets you see the true design; it’s right in front of you,” Bascom says. When it comes to the structure of a space, there can be plenty of innate beauty in this. However, as Bascom notes, “It’s definitely harder to design from that perspective.” Of course, when done correctly, this also means the finished look is that much more impressive. 

Defining elements and characteristics of minimalist interior design

When talking about a western minimalist style as we know it today, interiors with this aesthetic will often include: 

  • Simple lines 
  • Monochromatic or neutral color palettes 
  • Limited furniture 
  • Limited decorative objects 
  • Storage solutions that keep the space uncluttered 
  • Open floor plans 
  • Natural light 

What are the principles of minimalist design?

When you walk into a minimalist space, you might notice a lack of fluff and a room with few bells and whistles. “It’s almost like you would come and think, Wow, this space is really well edited or really well curated,” Clarke says. You may even think the room is missing something. “But really, it has everything that someone needs for that environment,” she finishes. This may be the ultimate principle of minimalist design: an emphasis on what’s truly needed and important with little addition of anything else. It exudes peace, tranquility, and calm. “It doesn’t necessarily promote high energy,” Clarke says. “It means that your eye has somewhere to really rest.”

As Bascom describes it, minimalism is all about being purposeful. It’s not asking, How little can I live with? but rather, What can I get rid of that I don’t need? When working with clients, Bascom says he and Clarke often try to find the core of what someone really loves and moves them, and weed out all the rest. “We find what really inspires them, what really touches them,” he says. “Once we do that, then you don’t need any excess.”

When you think of minimalism like this, it’s clear that it doesn’t have to look any specific way. Though the style often does manifest as uncluttered and white-walled rooms with a few focal pieces of furniture, it’s important to understand that it doesn’t have to. “You can still incorporate your identity or your heritage within this aesthetic,” Clarke says. “Even in a minimalist style, it should still feel like something that really does belong to you.” For example, you could have a room that follows all the traditional design decisions of a minimalist room, only instead of white and neutral walls, yours are bright pink. Even though it may not look like a minimalist space in the traditional sense, the room can still follow many core principles of the movement—peaceful, purposeful, uncluttered—and remain true to you. “We approach minimalism as a desire to be mindful,” Clarke adds, which can be achieved in many different ways. 

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